Chances are, if you’re a writer with spiritual inclinations, you’ll recognize this quote from Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation:
“If you write for God you will reach many men and bring them joy. If you write for men—you may make some money and you may give someone a little joy and you may make a noise in the world, for a little while. If you write for yourself, you can read what you yourself have written and after ten minutes you will be so disgusted that you will wish that you were dead.”
Okay, so maybe that last sentence sounds a tad extreme. I’m not quite willing to admit that sometimes, when I write for myself, I wish I were dead. This is not to say I don’t occasionally feel that way, only that I’m not willing to admit it. But I know what it’s like to re-read a draft penned when my ego was doing the writing and feel plenty disgusted. This is so shallow. Maybe I should stop writing altogether. Is Trader Joe’s hiring? Whole Foods?
That said, I also know what it’s like to connect spiritually before putting fingers to keyboard. I know what it’s like to pray, when writing a novel, an article or an essay: Please, help me help at least one person. And I know what it’s like to have that prayer answered.
Here’s an example. After my first novel was released, I lectured to college students who had read the book. Many had jobs and took classes at night. No easy feat. They made a terrific audience, eager to learn, not just about the book, but about the writing life and how they might improve their own writing.
When I gathered my things after the presentation, a woman approached. She diverted her eyes. At first, I thought she was shy. But when she started talking, she choked on her words, then cried openly. “When I read your book,” she said, “it was the first time I knew my son’s overdose wasn’t my fault.”
Prayer answered! One woman’s life changed because she read the book, heard the message of forgiveness, and felt free. Testimony to how writing with spiritual intention can liberate at least one soul. Does it get any better than that? Not much.
If you want your work to be guided by God or whoever/whatever you call your guiding creative force, you may already know the following premises (and promises) of writing as spiritual practice:
Committing to the page every day. Just like praying/meditating every day, just like asking (as people in Twelve Step programs often do) to be “relieved of the bondage of self” on a twenty-four-hour basis—daily writing establishes discipline that can foster both spiritual development and creativity.
Some days I ask for guidance and receive it quite boldly. Mostly this happens on my pre-dawn walks. When no other people, or very few, are out and about, when appreciating the moon or Orion or the clouds is almost effortless. It’s easier, then, for me to wonder—How does Daria (or any other character) get herself out of this mess? Or, why is Quinn hell-bent on ruining his business? — then release those questions while I walk, in the dark, waiting.
The forward movement, my feet on the pavement, “kissing the earth” as Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh would say, assures me I’m getting somewhere, even if I’m, literally and figuratively, still in the dark. As long as I don’t demand an answer (Yes, the answers come on God’s schedule), I either get clarity right then, or when I wake up the following day, or the next week, while I’m washing dishes or grocery shopping. And if no answers come on my schedule, I know to ask: What’s doing the asking? If it’s my desire or my ego, if I want it too badly, what does that say about my spiritual condition? I’m thinking here of A.A.’s Seventh Step, in which people in recovery “humbly ask” rather than demand relief from shortcomings.
Learning to listen. This is easier when I’m writing nonfiction than fiction. Why? If I’m writing (or teaching) spiritual memoir, for example, I feel dishonest if I don’t practice the process I preach: Practice the pause. But when writing fiction, I sometimes (think I) know where I’m going. This character needs to say this in order for that character to do that. Then, seemingly out of the blue, I hear The Voice: “She wants a divorce,” or “He wants to die.” Sometimes, I keep writing for a paragraph or two. If I’m feeling particularly defiant (No one’s going to questions my plan!) I continue for a couple pages, even a chapter.
Then I read what I’ve written. The dialogue sounds flat. Or the tone is so disingenuous my ears hurt when I read the work aloud. Begrudgingly, I return to the chapter or paragraph where I heard The Voice. I don’t question; I just write. Maybe I’m annoyed that my plan has been interrupted. But, hopefully, that day I’m humble enough to remember that what I write isn’t mine, anyway. It belongs to the God who graces me with the willingness to sit at my keyboard, day after day, learning to listen more intently. Getting back to that Merton quote, If I write for God, I just may help someone find some joy, some release.
Then I keep going. That’s not to say I won’t need an attitude adjustment before going back from chapter 17 to rework chapter 4. It just means I’ve written what I’m meant to write. And that, maybe, just maybe, by allowing my ego to be reduced, by listening more intently, I’ll bring joy or freedom to the person or people God wants me to.
But now you may be asking, What Voice is she talking about? Or, how do I know for sure I’m hearing The (Right) Voice, and not some wild and crazy, ego-driven thought? Good questions. My answer? If you continue to ask for guidance, you “will intuitively know.”
Dedicating writing time as an offering in gratitude for what has been freely given helps subdue the ego. This allows the work to express what, in a spiritual sense, it’s meant to communicate, not what the ego wants it to say or do. “I want this book to sell a lot of copies.” “I want stellar reviews.” “I want to leave a legacy.” “I want people to value me.” When I set those agendas, what am I saying about my self-worth, my spiritual condition? Am I so needy for attention, for love that I continue to look for it in all the wrong places? Inventory-taking helps.
Pushing through the hard times, believing that the next word, the next page, the next book will speak truth, strengthens the writer’s faith as well as the writing. I’ve been working on an essay, one that I hope (and pray) will touch at least one aspiring writer. It’s coming off as pedantic and a bit desperate. But I’m wanting it done. Now. Even before the essence of what the essay has to say is revealed to me, I want results. So, what does that say about my spiritual condition? Who’s doing the talking? DESIRE, DEMAND. There’s a difference between this prayer, “Give me the words,” and this prayer, “I’ll wait for you to give me the words, if and when you decide what you want me to say.” Now, in commercial terms, that second prayer—especially the “if”— may stop you cold. “Okay,” you might say. “I’ll wait until You want me to write this **&#$& thing.” It’s quite another to say, “Look, I’ve got an idea for a story. I want to write it. Help me, if you want me to get this message out into the world, at this time.” Step Six in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions states that “any person capable of enough willingness…—without any reservations whatever—has indeed come a long way spiritually,” and “is sincerely trying to grow in the image and likeness of his own Creator.”
Now comes the hard part
Let’s say you’ve read the above, you know the difference between asking and demanding that your work take shape, and you’re willing to wait for the timing to be God’s, not yours.
Let’s further say, you’ve found a publisher. The contract is signed. The final draft is (finally) final. Then, your book is up on Amazon! Look how that cover pops! And my author photo isn’t bad, either!
You’ve alerted your friends and relatives. All the people you listed in your acknowledgments. All your acquaintances at church or temple, the gym. Your bank teller. Your hair stylist. “I’ll check it out,” they say. “Can’t wait to read it.”
Then they don’t buy the book. Or they don’t review it. Or the reviews they post are lukewarm. Maybe worse, they review it, but miss the message you intended them to get. You might ask: Where’s the spiritual opportunity in all that?
Besides, all you want is to get on to writing the next book. You want your time with God, when he speaks to you, when he lets you know through your writing who you are and what your life’s purpose is. Instead, you need to market the book, you need to attend book club after book club, to talk about why this character did this and why that character did that, and you need to talk about your writing process. (Good luck putting that into words! Do you tell your readers you consume a jar of peanut butter by the tablespoonful when the words aren’t coming quickly enough? Or that you’d rather eat dirt than rewrite the fifth draft because your publisher wants the chapters longer or shorter? Your writing is perfectly clear to you, why can’t he see get what you’re trying to say?)
That’s when publishing as spiritual practice comes into play. And when, in recovery rooms’ terms, those *(#)$ growth opportunities rear up. (Groan.)
Why? Because, for those of us who are introverts, not inclined to promotion, and on the sensitive side, this is when we have the chance to be freed of hobbling sensitivities and dependence on the opinions of others to validate who we are. (Sounds a bit like some promises you may have heard, doesn’t it? The ones about finding “a new freedom and a new happiness,” or freedom from “fear of people.”)
This quote from Flannery O’Connor might say it best. “When a book leaves your hands, it belongs to God. He may use it to save a few souls or to try a few others, but I think that for the writer to worry is to take over God’s business.”
In other words, after a book (or essay or article) is written, it’s time to “turn it over.”
But not, I suggest, before, as Saint Paul writes in his Letter to the Ephesians, putting on “the whole armor of God.” In other words, preparing by remaining spiritually strengthened. Some people will like your work, some people won’t. In any case just barreling through criticism, by developing a thicker skin, doesn’t help answer questions like: Why does it hurt so much when I’m criticized, even constructively? I’m thinking here of what recovery teaches in steps four, five, and sometimes ten. Inventory! Until I have a reasonable understanding of the causes of the pains that influence my reactions to reviewers, to friends, to family who inevitably disappoint. They’re human, right?
When my first novel was released, I had more than a few sleepless nights. Why did she say that? Why did he promise to buy the book, then not follow through? Maybe I’m not called to do this work anyway. Is Trader Joe’s still hiring?
After I sulked a while, though, new gifts presented themselves. I was able to:
- Discover where those sensitivities really emanated from. Was it that C my high school journalism teacher gave me? The fact that, when my mother punished me by not speaking to me for days or weeks, it was best for me to stay mute until she inexplicably started talking to me again?
- Ask for my sensitivities to be removed, all the while remembering that my writing is, fundamentally, spiritual practice.
- Ask for—and accept—the willingness to persist. I had to claim it. Not just hunker down in front of my laptop and succumb to the temptation to fill out that application at Trader Joe’s.
- Learn to listen to and evaluate criticism. I once traveled all the way to Italy to study with a woman whose work I adored. At the first session, she called my memoir a “one-note lament.” Talk about a stake through the heart! When two others in the class left in tears because of the feedback they received, I called a friend back home. He reminded me that I made the trip to learn to write, not to make friends. So, instead of booking the next flight to JFK, I “took what I liked, and left the rest.” Sound familiar? Not coincidentally, when I returned home, I found an acceptance letter from a respected journal for one of the pieces that teacher had excoriated. At first, I felt justified. See, she didn’t know what she was talking about. When the piece was published, though, I saw how it did whine a bit. I saw how it could better communicate the message I felt it was to deliver. Did that mean the editor’s opinion was more or less valid than the teacher’s? Maybe. But the gift I started to learn was that, if I am dependent on others’ opinions, I’ll write what I think they want me to write, I’ll write to publish, not to write what I’m intended to.
In conclusion: If you’re a writer in recovery who is willing to believe in your craft as spiritual practice, I suggest that a plan is in place. You may not see it, not yet anyway. But if you rely on both your program tools and the messages from other spiritually centered writers to ask for guidance, you will receive it in a way that advances, not only your writing, but your spiritual maturity. That means you will be better prepared when you publish and receive both affirming praise and disappointing reviews and feedback. You will have the ability to keep your ego in check, and to be grateful for both the positive and negative input. Because, in the end, as long as you are centered, you will know both your work and your spirituality are progressing.
Like the Talmud says, “Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers, Grow, Grow.” As writers, we have our angels, too, always encouraging us to not just put words on the page, not just to publish, but to grow, grow, grow.
Marleen Pasch is a novelist, essayist and writing coach. Her work on health, healing and spirituality appears in journals and anthologies. Her newest novel, At the End of the Storm, is available at Amazon. Write to her at email@example.com.
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